Aluminium has been the standard material used in aircraft for more than a century - even the Wright brothers' famous first flight in 1903 used an aircraft made partially from the metal. But the "aluminium age" could be about to end - with the delivery of the first large-scale commercial aircraft made using 50 per cent "composite materials" including plastics and carbon fibre.
The much-delayed Boeing Dreamliner 787 has a range of 10,000 miles, is far quieter than ordinary jets, and is constructed using a "moulding" process that has eliminated 1,500 aluminum sheets and 50,000 fasteners. It's also three years late - and has cost a reported $32billion.
Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of the 787 programme, said: "It took a lot of hard work to get to this day."
The aircraft has been much delayed - its maiden flight was delayed for more than two years - and will cost up to $200 million. The delays are reported to have cost maker Boeing more than $32 billion.
It offers hi-tech entertainment with Android touchscreens built into every seat - even in Economy. The "composite" design - using mixed materials such as titanium and carbon fibre - is believed to have been a spur for rival Airbus to incorporate carbon fibre in future aircraft.
The blue and white-painted long-range aircraft, which boasts a graceful new design with raked wingtips, will leave for Japan on Tuesday and enter service domestically on Oct 26.
Boeing has taken orders for 821 Dreamliners, which will compete with the future Airbus A350, due in 2013.
"It is simpler than today's aeroplanes and offers increased functionality and efficiency," says Boeing's official description of the plane. "The team has incorporated airplane health-monitoring systems that allow the airplane to self-monitor and report systems maintenance requirements to ground-based computer systems by itself."
"You can tell the Dreamliner is special the moment you see it coming in to land," says Jonathan Margolis, a technology specialist who saw one of its first test flights, "The near silence is almost spooky. But the thing which struck me most when I saw it at the Farnborough Air Show was the obvious suppleness of the composite structure. You can clearly see the wings flexing. It almost looks like an Airfix kit."
"Speaking to the pilot later, he confirmed that as a result of its ultra-light airframe, the 787 is exceptionally manoeuvrable and easy to fly precisely."
Boeing abandoned plans for a sound barrier-chasing "Sonic Cruiser" a decade ago and worked on lighter long-range jets as cash-starved airlines valued efficiency over speed. Boeing expects this to become the standard for future passenger planes.
Mike Sinnett, the 787 program's chief project engineer, said: "Technology will only get more efficient and lighter."
The plane's lighter weight allows airlines to operate routes even when the demand is insufficient for larger aircraft like the Boeing 777 or 747, or the Airbus 380 superjumbo.